It all started on my sister’s 30th birthday, this past June. A landmark birthday calls for landmark gifts, right? Well, my brother Jeff asked me if we could do a 3-way call…said he had something to tell both of us. After singing happy birthday to Erin, the conversation continued a bit like this:
Jeff: “Well, I wanted you both on the phone to tell you that Danielle [his wife] and I went skydiving last week! We didn’t tell anyone because we didn’t want them to worry.”
Us: “WHOA!!!!!!! How was it?!?!?”
Jeff: “It was so awesome!!!! I told mom and dad about it the other day and mom said that Erin – you’ve always wanted to go skydiving.”
Erin: “Ummm, that’s not true at all.”
[At this point, I see where he’s headed and feel really uncomfortable…]
Jeff: “Oh, well this is going to be awkward then. Because for your 30th birthday, and Manda, as an early 25th birthday present for you, I wanted to send you skydiving together!”
[long pause, then uncomfortable laughs]
Us: “Uhhhh….thhhaankss….. we’ll have to talk about this…”
We got off the phone and I immediately felt like I was going to have a heart attack. Why in the hell would I jump out of a plane of my own free will?! But Jeff was so excited about giving this gift that Erin and I decided to go for it.
This week I’m out in Napa, CA during my spring break, visiting Erin, her husband Keith, and my super duper cute niece, Kaia. We thought we might be able to get out of the whole skydiving thing, but right before I flew out here, Jeff gave me a check with enough money to send us skydiving. (If we weren’t such terrible liars, we might’ve spent it on a spa day instead!) So we booked a date and time – Wednesday, Mar 7, 2012 at 9am. I couldn’t sleep for the next two nights as I kept imagining myself jumping out of a plane and dying. Erin and I took turns freaking out, but when Wednesday morning rolled around, we were ready to go (errr, ready to get it over with!).
We loaded up the car and began the hour-long drive. Not 15 minutes into the drive, we received a phonecall from the skydiving place saying it was too windy and they’d have to reschedule. At this point, we had done so much to psych ourselves up that this was a huge disappointment! And I’m not in town much longer, so we were having a hard time finding another time that would work. We turned around to drive home, and Erin and I brainstormed other options. We called other skydiving places that were in different locations to see if 1) it wasn’t too windy and 2) they could fit us in at the last minute. Our best option was an hour and a half in the opposite direction from the original location, so we headed that way, hoping it might work out in spite of the fact that their office wasn’t open yet and we couldn’t get ahold of them. Finally, when we were about 30 minutes away, they answered and said as soon as we made it up there, they’d send us up!
We hung up the phone and screamed! This was going to happen after all!!!!!! The rest of the car ride, we kept saying, “I can’t believe we’re doing this.” We arrived to the middle of the nowhere – a tiny municipal airport in Cloverdale, CA. Next to it was a trailer with a banner up that said “NorCal Skydiving“. I guess I hoped for something professional looking so that I would feel super safe and assured I wasn’t going to die.
It made sense, once I thought more about it, that a skydiving place would be run by people who are just a bunch of thrill-seeking bros. So we entered the trailer, sat down on some couches from the 70s, filled out a waiver saying we wouldn’t sue if we died, and watched a hilarious video saying the same thing. The waiver scared us more than we were already scared. We initialed at least 20 times to say that we understand there’s a good chance of us dying, but we are choosing the thrill of skydiving anyway. My favorite part of the waiver was where it had us initial that this was a voluntary choice; we were not being forced to do this. I thought of Jeff and wasn’t sure I could say I was doing it voluntarily! If the waiver wasn’t ridiculous enough, the video was. It was of Bill Booth, the dude who invented tandem skydiving. Wikipedia describes him as “an engineer, inventor, serious beard aficionado and entrepreneur in the skydiving equipment manufacturing industry.” I’d like you to take note of the “serious beard aficionado” part. It was all we could focus on when we watched the video.
Once we signed our lives away, we headed over to a garage to suit up. The whole gang was sitting around listening to really good late 90s/early 2000s rap and R&B. We told them we were really nervous and asked lots of questions. They responded mostly in jokes. We figured out that a couple of the guys were the instructors we’d be jumping with. Another one was a photographer/videographer that would go down with us to capture the adventure. There was an old Shawn Connery-type of man sitting on a lawn chair in the corner just looking on but not saying anything. We learned after awhile that he was the one to train all these guys how to parachute. I refer to him as sensei (Erin calls him The Godfather). He only said one thing while we saw him: While my harness was being put on, Erin looked over at me (her harness already on) and said, “The harness makes your ass look good, Manda!” I laughed and said thanks. Then The Godfather looked back at Erin and said, “Your ass doesn’t look too bad either!” Another guy drove up on a moped while we were all talking. His hair was down to his butt, and his jeans were tighter than anyone’s. Erin and I kept exchanging glances…who the hell are these guys? So Erin asked him, and he said, “I pack the parachutes.” Oh great.
A couple guys who were skydiving after us were hanging around in the garage, too. One them was a big guy with lots of tattoos. My jump master, in his bro-like way asked, “Brother man, what’s your neck say?” To which he responded, “Fuck you.” That’s right, folks, he had FUCK YOU tattooed largely across his neck. Cool.
Once we were all suited up and ready, we asked what we were waiting on. One of the jump instructors said, “Oh, we’re just waiting for the pilot to sober up.” !!!!!!! These guys sure knew how to have a good time, though it wasn’t exactly helping with my anxiety. We headed over to the tiny plane, received a few instructions, and took off. The plane ride didn’t scare me other than the fact that I knew we were getting closer and closer to the time when I’d need to jump out. We were so high above the ground when one of the instructors told us we were just over halfway. Halfway?!?! My heart was racing and my mind trying to embrace the possibility of death when the cameraman opened the door of the plane. Shit. We had decided I was to go down first, then the cameraman would follow my sister out to videotape her fall. I was hooked so closely to my instructor that I was simply sitting on his lap and had little control. He scooted up to the doorway and we hung our feet outside of the plane. I crossed my arms across my chest as I was instructed, said a few choice words, and we leaned forward out of the plane.
It’s hard to describe the next 45 seconds as we free fell from 10,000 feet up in the air. My immediate reactions other than fear were that it was hard to breathe, and my ears hurt INTENSELY. (In talking with people about this later, I think I just have ear pressure problems. I have a hard time swimming to the bottom of a 9 ft pool without my ears hurting!) Everything was so loud that when my tandem instructor pulled the parachute and I finally came to, the first thing I managed to yell was, “I think I’m deaf!” I was relieved once the parachute was out…floating high above the earth wasn’t at all scary to me. And considering all of the anticipation, the whole event was over in about 15 minutes.
Did I have fun? I think so. Would I do it again? I’d consider it. Would I recommend it to other people? Definitely. Was it less scary than I thought it would be? Nope, it was exactly as scary as I thought. Erin and I were a bit speechless after everything. We got back in the car (to head to lunch at the Hamburger Ranch!), and found ourselves right back where we started. On our drive to NorCal, we couldn’t stop saying, “I can’t believe we’re doing this.” And on our way back, we couldn’t stop saying, “I can’t believe we just did that.”
Thanks for the thrill, Jeff. For my 25th birthday, you not only gave me skydiving as a present… you made me a whole lot cooler and more badass than I was. Boom.
(To see more photos, click here.)
And don’t forget to check out our skydiving video (the cameraman goes down at the same time as my sister):